Back then, we didn’t call them serial killers. We didn’t have those words. And truthfully, I don’t think we called them anything, really. Back then bad people did bad things and good people did good things and that was the way it was.

A statue in Antwerp depicting Saint Nicholas and the Pickle Boys

Old Sam the Butcher was a bad man, though few knew how bad. Most just thought him surly and inhospitable. Everyone knew Old Sam the Butcher hated children. He’d cuss at them and shake his butcher’s knife at them and occasionally cuff one of them if they got too close, but no one knew that Old Sam the Butcher hated children with a murderous rage, a killer’s hatred.

Why did Old Sam the Butcher hate children? Who knows, really? But I figure it was because Old Sam, when he was Young Sam, was never really a child himself. His father was the meanest son of a dog you’d ever see. His father never let Young Sam have friends or be a child. Young Sam had to learn the ways of butchering, so he could follow in his father’s footsteps, and a childhood spent butchering fowl, pigs, lambs, cows, sheep and the occasional strange creature like a dolphin, rhino or hippogryph is no childhood at all.

I can imagine Young Sam the Butcher watching the kids in the street playing stick ball, defacing statues with chalk or throwing sticks at rats and yearning to join in the hi-jinks and play.

But Young Sam never got the chance to have a normal childhood. So he grew old without ever being young, with hatred, murderous hatred for children, growing in his rotting soul.

Old Sam the Butcher was the best butcher in Myra in 400 AD. He wasn’t exactly wealthy, but he was far from poor. He own several properties, and rented rooms to travelers. He lived alone. Having never married, he never ran the risk of having a hated child of his own.

One Christmas Eve Old Sam the Butcher had just finished mopping the bloodied floor of his butcher shop and was about to blow out the candles when who should come calling but Saint Nicholas, who we know today as Santa Claus.

Nicholas had never met Old Sam the Butcher, but knew him by reputation as a surly and inhospitable man, but also as an excellent butcher. Old Sam the Butcher similarly knew Saint Nicholas by reputation as a good and holy and pious man, a Bishop of the One True Church who had once helped organize the Holy Word of God into what we now call the Bible.

The sight of the good and holy Saint Nicholas caused Old Sam the Butcher to look at the three barrels of pickles he kept in the coolest, shadiest part of his butcher shop. Then he looked back at Saint Nicholas, the whisper of guilt in his eyes.

Did the good Saint Nicholas notice the whisper of guilt in the the eyes of Old Sam the Butcher?

I need to go back in time seven years, to the year 393 AD or so. Old Sam the Butcher was seven years younger in that year, but still quite old. It was Christmas Eve, and he had just finished mopping the butcher shop and was about to blow out the candles when three boys, aged 12, 13 and 14, entered the shop dragging a goat on a rope.

“Master Butcher!” said the oldest of the boys upon entering, “Pray thee listen to us before you cast us out. We are but three students, returning home from school in Athens for the 12 Days of Celebration of our Lord and Savior’s birth just about 393 years ago.

“My name is Tag, the names of my friends are Tinsel and Pine. On the way home we encountered this goat on the road, the broken scrap of rope around its neck a sure sign that the goat has wandered away from its owner.”

“What’s the plight of a lost goat to me, boy?” spat Old Sam the Butcher, his hand gripping the handle of his favorite cleaver.

The three boys were taken aback by the hostility of the butcher, especially on the eve of the most joyous of all holy days.

“We three,” offered Tinsel, the second of the three boys, “are simply passing through, and we thought that perhaps you may know the local goat herds in the area, being that you are, after all, a butcher and must occasionally purchase such animals for the fine meats that might be harvested upon their slaughter!”

Old Sam the Butcher’s mind was now running at the highest of speeds, so great was his discomfort, hatred and need. But instead of screaming, as he wanted too, Old Sam the Butcher suddenly became very calm. His visage softened and he actually smiled, forming brand new creases in the skin around his mouth as he had never before smiled in his entire life.

“I’m sorry boys,” said Old Sam the Butcher. “You must forgive me. That goat you have brought into my shop this Christmas Eve is actually my goat, which must have escaped from the pen out back where I keep animals before slaughtering them.”

The youngest of the boys, Pine, laughed merrily. “Truly then, kind Butcher, it is a Christmas miracle that we were able to retrieve your goat and return him to you!”

Old Sam the Butcher swallowed the bile that rose in his throat at the sound of the boy’s voice, which had cracked awkwardly, signaling the near arrival of puberty. So great was Old Sam the Butcher’s hatred or these boys that his pancreas ceased working. A small trickle of blood flowed from his ear, unnoticed by the boys.

“Certainly, there must me some sort of reward three stalwart young men deserve for performing such a kind deed,” said Old Sam the Butcher, the slightest echo of a twitch in his left eye.

The three boys protested, saying that on Christmas Eve, of all days, it was their pleasure to perform so kind a deed.

But Old Sam the Butcher would hear none of it. Wearing the kindliest face he could manage, but clutching the handle of his favorite and sharpest cleaver so tightly the wood began to crack and splinter, he said, “I believe that each of you should receive a reward, and that reward shall be some fresh goat meat, to bring to your families for Christmas morning.

“Pray thee,” said the butcher, looking away from the boys lest he give away his evil intentions, “bring the goat forward.”

The boys were very excited at the prospect of receiving a slab of fresh goat meat from their new, kindly butcher friend. The goat, sensing something wrong, would have none of it. It took all three boys, tugging with all their might, to drag the goat to the butcher block, stretching the beasts neck tightly so that Old Sam the Butcher could behead the beast with one blow of his ever-so-sharp cleaver.

As the boys heaved and pulled the goat into position, Old Sam the Butcher sharpened his blade on the rotating whetstone near the back of the shop.

“Are we ready, boys?” shouted Old Sam the Butcher.

“Yay, verily, we are ready, kind Sir,” said the boys in perfect, polite unison.

All three boys fixed their attention on the struggling goat and were lost in reveries imagining their mothers’ happiness at the gift they would soon be able to deliver. Old Sam stepped up behind the boys and with one swing of his cleaver, delivered with all the power of years of animal butchering and with all the hatred born of years of watching children laugh and play, beheaded the three boys in one quick stroke.

The heads of the boys, still smiling and still filled with thoughts of a happy, Merry Christmas, sailed through the air, flipping end over end, as if propelled, rocket-like, from the bloody neck stumps of their bodies. The strong hearts of the active young boys spewed geysers of blood that splashed off the ceilings of the butcher shop and rained down upon everything in the freshly cleaned butcher shop.

The heads rolled and bounced on the hard floors of the butcher shop. The decapitated bodies of the boys spasmed and jerked about, their bloody neck holes painting the room in garish red spray. Old Sam the Butcher and the very surprised but appreciative goat were dripping with gore as the bodies of Tag, Tinsel and Pine fell into a pile on the floor, the occasional death twitch causing the occasional squirt of blood from their neck holes.

It was all quite spectacular.

The goat backed away slowly at first, then turned and ran from the Butcher Shop, out into the dark night.

Old Sam the Butcher didn’t care about the goat. Instead, he set himself to the gruesome task of dismembering the boys, lopping off their arms and legs, chopping their torsos into many small pieces and tossing their bodies into barrels of pickling brine. It was messy, exhausting work, but it was also quite satisfying.

Finally, after a long night’s work and as the sun rose on Christmas in Smyrna, 393AD, Old Sam the Butcher grabbed the heads of the boys by the hair, and tossed them, one by one, into the brine with a splash. Then he nailed the barrel tops in place and moved the barrels to the coolest, shadiest corner of his shop. Old Sam the Butcher then washed away the blood that stained the walls and ceilings of his butcher shop, put a “Closed for Christmas” sign on his door, went to bed and slept soundly (and even happily), for the first time in his life.

Over the next seven years Old Sam the Butcher would look at the barrels in the corner of his shop and smile. The barrels and the three boys had a calming effect on him. He was eating better, getting regular exercise, and was even dating the widow Ivanka, who took in laundry for coin.

But now, in the year 400 AD, Old Sam the Butcher was looking into the eyes of Saint Nicholas, a good and powerful man, said to be favored by the Lord himself. And Old Sam the Butcher had foolishly allowed a glimmer of guilt to cross his eyes, as he had looked at the barrel in the corner that contained the evidence of his crimes.

“Good Saint Nicholas!” said Old Sam the Butcher, “Legends of you holiness precede you, Good Sir.”

“Legends, I assure you,” said Saint Nicholas, a man of modesty, “I come because I am en route to a Council in Nicaea, and I need to avail myself of the freshest pickled meats.”

The smile vanished from Old Sam the Butcher’s face. Did Saint Nicholas know of his crimes? Had the Lord watched Old Sam the Butcher behead and dismember the boys lo these seven years ago, and now send his most Sainted follower to dispense some form of rough justice?

“Pickled meats, you say, Sainted Nicholas?” asked Old Sam the Butcher.

Nicholas smiled and absently scratched his reddened nose. “Yes,” said Saint Nicholas with utmost seriousness. “Pickled.”

There was tension in the air so thick it would take a sharpened cleaver to slice it.

“Perhaps from those barrels, right there!” said Saint Nicholas, pointing towards the barrels in the coolest and darkest corner of the butcher sharp.

“Those barrels,” said Old Sam the Butcher. “Right there.”

“Yes,” said Saint Nicholas.

To fully understand this exchange, you need to travel back in time with me once more. Not seven years, but seven minutes, when the good Saint Nicholas first entered the butcher shop.

“Help us, Saint Nicholas! Help us!” said three tiny voices, tremulous and on the edge of disappearing forever into that chaotic void from which the Lord God had created all things at the beginning of time about 3000 years previous.

Nicholas looked toward the barrels in the corner, from whence the voices had come.

Then he looked to Old Sam, and saw the glimmer of guilt in the Butcher’s eye.

In a moment of Sainted Holiness, religious clarity and God-bestowed Wisdom, Saint Nicholas of Myra understood all that had happened in the little butcher shop seven years ago.

Now follow me four minutes into the future, where Saint Nicholas and Old Sam the Butcher glared at each other, both knowing all that was unsaid between them.

Old Sam the Butcher gripped the handle of his cleaver, his mighty arm muscles taught and prepared to strike.

Saint Nicholas stared back calmly, his hands empty, relaxed. There was a long pause in the conversation.

Then.

“Come out boys,” said Saint Nicholas. “By the power of the Holy Spirit I command you to leave your pickled tomb, reassemble, and dance for joy in the name of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!”

Old Sam the Butcher raised his cleaver to strike, but spry old Saint Nicholas leapt back, away from the butcher. The butcher hurled his cleaver, but Santa pivoted with Holy Grace, and Santa watched as the cleaver passed him, burying itself in the door frame of the butcher shop’s entrance.

What Old Sam the Butcher would have done next is unknown, because before anything else at all could happen, the pickle barrels in the coolest, darkest corner of the room exploded, and the three boys, Tag, Tinsel and Pine emerged, whole, reassembled and uninjured.

The boys restored to life by the grace of Saint Nicholas, began to Dance and Sing with Joy.

“What a Merry Christmas!” sang the boys, “To be restored to life!”

Saint Nicholas joined the boys in their dance, and sang, “What a Merry Christmas! To celebrate and sing!”

Old Sam the Butcher watched all this with dozens of emotions coursing through his crusty heart and clouded soul. The emotions that swirled though him resulted in some sort of annihilation of his spirit, and in the absence of all that made him the evil and cursed man he was, a light bloomed within his soul, and through this light his sins were washed away.

Old Sam the Butcher fell to his knees, tears of joy and sorrow streaming from his eyes.

“Please Saint Nicholas, please Tag, Tinsel and Pine… Please in the name of all that is Holy, forgive me!”

Saint Nicholas smiled and touched the butcher’s head. “No need for forgiveness, my friend. Your sins are gone… but… There is another who bears the weight of what happened those seven years ago…”

“Yessss,” bleated a voice. “You have saved the lives of the boys and the soul of the butcher man, but you will never defeat meeeee…”

All in the butcher shop turned with surprise. The boys stopped dancing, and stared, mouths agape. Old Sam the Butcher put his hands together and prayed. Only Saint Nicholas seemed to have expected the appearance of the goat that had escaped with its life seven years ago, standing in the doorway of the butcher shop.

“Satan,” said Saint Nicholas.

“Nicholas,” said Satan in the form of a goat. “Still wetting the bed?”

Saint Nicholas looked at the boys and the Butcher with mild embarrassment. “No,” said Saint Nicholas, “not since I was eight years old…”

The goat bleated with laughter. Struck by the strangeness of it all, Saint Nicholas couldn’t help but laugh himself, and the three boys, Tag, Tinsel and Pine, began laughing as well, as did did Old Sam the Butcher, who was now innocent and pure of heart.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” laughed Saint Nicholas boisterously, shaking the butcher shop with his laugh, loosening the butcher’s cleaver from where it was embedded in the doorway, allowing gravity to cause the cleaver to fall and cut the head of Satan, in the form of a goat, clean off.

“Merry-effen-Christmas!” said Saint Nicholas.